The Church and the Culture of Personality

I’m in the process of reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and she mentions something in the first chapter that really has made me think quite a bit. In that chapter she talks about how America has shifted from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. After reading the chapter I contemplated if this shift is seen in American Christianity and if it has, which I think it has, then what have been some of the ways this shift has impacted it.

Before I get to that I want to give Cain’s descriptions of the Culture of Character and Culture of Personality before moving on. For the Culture of Character she says:

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private.

For the Culture of Personality, Cain has this to say:

But when they focused on the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.

QuietTo put it in a broad way, this was a shift mainly in what we found important and where we gained our self worth from. The importance shifted from having good morals, being hard-working, and doing ones duty to being likeable, entertaining, and fun. This is in turn displayed in how we view our self-worth. Instead of gaining that worth from inward virtues, it is about external validation. Worth is seen by how many friends we have, how attractive we are to others, how many people like our Facebook status or read our blogs.

Now this isn’t to put one culture over another necessarily. Concepts like morality, duty, and hard-work are good things, but they can also be used as chains to imprison and ensnare. Just like seeking external validation isn’t all bad either. To have people love and even like us is a wonderful thing. The danger is that we can put on masks and hide who we really are or exploit ourselves in order to gain that validation.

It may seem that I have traveled from my original intent, but I haven’t forgotten it. Has the church made this shift along with the culture at large? In my own opinion, yes, at least to some extent.

I haven’t done any exhaustive research, but these are just a few observations in how I think the Culture of Personality may have influenced American Christianity. By no means are these the only possible ways, but simply my own thoughts. I could also be wrong in my thoughts too.

I would say a significant trend, and maybe the most significant one, in American Christianity that reflects the idea of the Culture of Personality is the rise of the mega-church. These are churches that attract 2,000 or more people to a service on a weekly basis.

I would say that this is reflective of this shift because often times these churches are centered around men or women who are seen as extraordinary personalities. This is not to say that there isn’t morality or virtues underneath, just simply that these are people who are able to draw in vast crowds of people to one location repeatedly. Their eloquence in speaking, their dramatic styles, or some other quality draws people in and keeps them there. These churches can also be seen as the popular and even entertaining option and potentially gain a following from that in addition to a engaging leader.

The use of media has also been part of this shift as well, and I would say has helped grow the mega-church trend. The ability to have messages by a pastor aired over radio, television, and now the internet allows for people to have access to some of the best speakers in the world. This allows for many to drawn by teachings and sermons by these leaders even though there is no real personal connection and without direct knowledge of their private virtues or lack thereof nor they of ours.

This isn’t restricted to mega-churches though. With blogging, Facebook, twitter, and other avenues of social media we can all too easily present our best selves to try to gain the most likes, re-tweets, or views. We can present ourselves and connect with people who do not get to see us everyday and be able to present a good face. It is all too easy to focus on being entertaining or controversial and not really present who we really are.

Another aspect of this has been the rise of the celebrity christian. These are individuals who rise to prominence within the Christian culture and gain a significant amount of clout due to their popularity. This popularity may have come from pastoring a mega-church, authoring a book, or writing a blog or some combination of these or other reasons. This popularity may even be noticed by those who aren’t Christians, for either good or bad reasons.

Again this isn’t saying that any Christians who are popular are bad, just that this has been a shift that has occurred that falls in line with the Culture of Personality. It can be a bad thing as we’ve seen recently with the crumbling of Mark Driscoll’s credibility this year, but it doesn’t have to be. I think there is a vast difference in putting on a show to gain popularity or stir up controversy and becoming popular due to your teaching and speaking/writing style. The simple reality is that before radio, television, and the internet it would be much more difficult to have the kind of popularity needed to gain such followings that we see today.

Another development that may seem a bit odd to some put next to mega-churches and celebrity Christians, but in some ways isn’t since I’d argue it has given us one of the earliest and most well known celebrity Christian, Billy Graham. This development is revival meetings or crusades. Admittedly, this isn’t as popular of a method these days, but I would say it was a transitional piece that wound up paving the way for mega-churches to come later.

The basic premise of this is to set up a tent or rent out a auditorium for a traveling speaker to come and fire up believers in that area to increase their witness for the Gospel. This type of meeting could also be a tool used to introduce Christ to those who haven’t heard about him before in the case of Billy Graham’s Crusades. These events tend to be focused around a rather charismatic, engaging, or even forceful individual. Often they are done by an outside personality like a traveling evangelist or member of a para-church organization rather than a local pastor.

The use of this personality with a powerful message was used to bring people to Christ and cause people to recommit to their faith in new ways. While there was most likely a moral component to these meetings, the method of delivery and to some degree I imagine the expected reaction was much more external. It was about presenting the urgent message of salvation or about getting people fired up enough to go out and be winsome in their own faith and not necessarily about daily faithfulness.

I think all of these components have leaked into the expectations for the next generation of leaders. I felt this in my own attempt to become a pastor. I tend to be a bit quiet when meeting new people. It always seemed that my rather quiet and introspective side caused people to question my desire to be a pastor. Also when I spoke of saying that I felt more effective in churches around 100-150 or so the question always became about wanting the church to grow.

It felt like the ideal pastor was someone who was talkative and maybe a bit loud who wanted to pastor a mega-church or at least grow their church into one. Now this may not have been the case, but it is the impression these questions left me with. If this is the case though, then I would say it is another way that the church has shifted into the Culture of Personality.

These are the ways that I think the church culture has bought into the Culture of Personality whether for good or for ill. I think that the church has often become focused on the externals of people a bit too much while ignoring the personal lives and interactions of the personalities we have lifted up. However, this has also given us a wealth of resources to glean from as the accessibility of books, sermons, and other resources that is unprecedented. It is a mixed bag, and the trick is trying to navigate through these pros and cons.

 

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